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CES em CENA 53

Trauma (and mental health) in times of COVID-19

Since the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has erupted into our lives. Although we cannot anticipate the full scale of its consequences, it is already clear the potential for trauma and its pernicious threat to the mental health of individuals and societies.

Initially, the imminent danger of serious illness or death for each one of us and our loved ones, confinement, and sudden changes in the ways we coexist in public or within the family were warning factors. Then, various unknowns started surrounding us in a disruptive manner – from the evolution of the virus to the duration of the crisis, from uncertainties in the education system to the feared exhaustion of the health service, from the danger of unemployment to individual and collective economic collapse. The drama, covering the entire world, hinders us from seeing reassuring perspectives of limits regarding time, geography, age group or socio-economic field, or foreseeing the processes of future reconstruction. These deep experiences of fear, of a serious threat to survival, of an abrupt and involuntary breakdown of the previous life path consistently substantiate a trauma diagnosis following a crisis, disaster or catastrophe.

Such a deep, potentially traumatic context and the implicit stalling of other mental health determinants – poverty, unemployment, family dysfunctionality, social exclusion or stigma – act as high-risk precipitators of the illness of individuals, families and societies. They can also seriously influence the way we look at ourselves, the world around us, and the future that awaits us. With no alternatives evident and an incapacity to adapt, a constant state of alert and the loss of hope tends to lead to a pattern of reassurance through risk behaviour, allowing suffering to set in, thus leading to a mental health deterioration.

It is therefore important, in a trauma context such as we live in today, that we focus on strategies that might in some way prevent and mitigate the illness of trauma. How can we stimulate adaptation, support and trust skills, both at an individual and at a collective level? How can we transform our experiences into tools of individual resilience, and into contributions to collective efforts of building a more solidary, healthy and integrating future?

Efficient responses are moulded in the cultural matrix of the affected person and the affected community. This is the basis that shapes the reading code of a traumatic experience and models the social support responses needed. In pandemic times, consistent forms of preventing the illness, of intervening post-trauma and of promoting mental health must be responses centred on the community. Solidary responses of civic intervention, bringing together the knowledge base of local communities with those of technical knowledge centres, opens new windows to understanding and intervention. Responses that stimulate personal and community strategies of prevention and overcoming illness. Responses that, taking on the transforming power of traumatic events throughout these times, stimulate opportunities for developing different futures.

Luísa Sales, Psychiatrist, Trauma Centre Coordinator

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